Monday, May 05, 2008

Thoughts for the day: Reasons not to be a materialist if you have a mind

Unless, that is, you have a grant and must spend it advocating materialism. Even so, consider what you are up against:

“The most striking feature is how much of mainstream [materialistic] philosophy of mind is obviously false….[I]n the philosophy of mind, obvious facts about the mental, such as that we all really do have subjective conscious mental states…are routinely denied by many…of the advanced thinkers in the subject.”
-- John Searle, The Rediscovery of Mind (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), 3.

“It is not that we know what would explain consciousness but are having trouble finding the evidence to select one explanation over the others; rather, we have no idea what an explanation of consciousness would even look like.”--Colin McGinn, The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World (New York: Basic Books, 1999), 61.

“We don’t know… how a brain (or anything else that is physical) could manage to be a locus of conscious experience. This last is, surely, among the ultimate metaphysical mysteries; don’t bet on anyone ever solving it.”
--Jerry Fodor, In Critical Condition: Polemical Essays on Cognitive Science and the Philosophy of Mind (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998), 83.

Actually if you say silly enough things, you could end up working against materialism, which might be a good idea.

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The Spiritual Brain is not a brainiac menace!

Here are some kind words about The Spiritual Brain from Brian T. Olszewski of the National Catholic Reporter's Book Club column:
For the initiated ... The Spiritual Brain is a fascinating exploration of relationships between God and neuroscience. Since it is not possible to determine how God "thinks," the exploration that takes place does so through the eyes and experience of science. Even those for whom discussions of God and neuroscience are foreign matter might be intrigued by such questions as "Is there a God program?" and "Does the God module even exist?"
Beauregard and O'Leary are thorough in presenting the cases, and in demonstrating for their peers how God, despite science's best efforts, still transcends the laboratory, the research and the theories.

Actually, while Olszewski really likes our book, he makes The Spiritual Brain sound much more formidable than it actually is. Look, if that book were half as learned as he makes out in his column, I could never have co-written it.

Here's an easy test: This is the Introduction . It actually does not get harder than this. And parts of it are very, very funny - but it was mostly materialists supplying the fun, not usually intentionally.

Introductory Chapter at a Glance

The Spiritual Brain: Introduction
Part One: Neuroscience as if your mind is real
Part Two: Who has enough faith to be a materialist?
Part Three: The uses of non-materialist neuroscience
Part Four: Materialism is running on empty

Zombie lurches across screen intoning "The ... Spiritual ... Brain ... is ... not ... a brainiac ... menace ... " No wait, cut, cut! That graphic is for a different blog.

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Neuroscience: Human brains are unique, neuroscientist observes

Are human brains unique?, Dr. Michael Gazzaniga asks and - in more news that shouldn't surprise anyone - decides that the answer is yes:
I always smile when I hear Garrison Keillor say, "Be well, do good work, and keep in touch." It is such a simple sentiment yet so full of human complexity. Other apes don't have that sentiment. Think about it. Our species does like to wish people well, not harm. No one ever says, "have a bad day" or "do bad work" and keeping in touch is what the cell phone industry has discovered all of us do, even when there is nothing going on.

There in one sentence Keillor captures humanness. The familiar cartoon that makes its way around evolutionary biologists circles shows an ape at one end of a line and then several intermediate early humans culminating in a standing tall, erect human. We now know the line isn't so direct but the metaphor still works. We did evolve and we are what we are through the forces of natural selection. And yet I would like to amend that cartoon. I see the human turning around with a knife in his hand and cutting his imaginary cord off, in being liberated to do things no other animal comes close to realizing.

This is, of course, an introduction to his forthcoming book, Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique (Ecco; June 24, 2008), in which he tries to mesh his insights with materialism. He especially needs to believe that the human brain can be explained entirely in terms of natural selection. That's wildly improbable, but watching him try will likely be interesting.

One interesting topic Gazzaniga addresses is the importance of brain size:
From my own perspective on this issue, I have never been taken with the brain size argument. [= bigger is better] For the past 45 years I have been studying split-brain patients. These are patients who have had their two hemispheres of the brain surgically separated in an effort to control their epilepsy. Following their surgery, the left brain can no longer communicate meaningfully with their right brain, thus isolating one from the other. In effect, a 1340 gram interconnected brain has become a 670 gram brain. What happens to intelligence?

Well, not much. What one sees is the specialization that we humans have developed over years of evolutionary change. The left hemisphere is the smart half of the brain. It speaks, thinks, and generates hypothesis. The right brain does not and is a poor symbolic cousin to the left. It does, on the other hand have some skills that remain superior to those on the left, especially in the domain of visual perception. Yet, for present purposes, the overarching point is that the left hemisphere remains as cognitively adept as it was before it was disconnected from the right brain, leaving its 670 grams in the dust. Smart brains are derived from more than mere size.

I'm skeptical that the right brain is as useless as Gazzaniga thinks. But a reductionist always needs to leave a pile of stuff on the cutting room floor.

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Chimpanzees more rational than humans?

In news that shouldn’t surprise anyone, German researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology found that chimpanzees choose more "rationally" than humans - if by "rationally" you mean that, in a reward game,
Humans typically make offers close to 50 percent of the reward. They also reject as unfair offers of significantly less than half of the reward, even though this choice means they get nothing.

The study, however, showed chimpanzees reliably made offers of substantially less than 50 percent, and accepted offers of any size, no matter how small.

The researchers concluded both that chimpanzees do not show a willingness to make fair offers and reject unfair ones. In this way, they protect their self interest and are unwilling to pay a cost to punish someone they perceive as unfair.

The study (published in Science, October 5, 2007) continues in the well-worn path of trying to derive human behavior from primate ape behavior, and when that doesn’t work, the outcome is supposed to be something of a surprise.

Why? Humans often assign values other than the expected ones, have specific ideas about what's fair, and prefer emotional satisfactions to other types. Don't believe me, believe Woody Allen.

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Service note

Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O'Leary ( is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), an overview of the intelligent design controversy, and of Faith@Science. She was named CBA Canada's Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul (Harper 2007).

My other blog is the Post-Darwinist, detailing events of interest in the intelligent design controversy.